Disagreements can take on many forms. Sometimes it’s just a quick spat and then straight on to make-up sex. Other times, it’s a full-on blowout that wakes the neighbors and puts the dishes in jeopardy. Then there are the disagreements that can drag out for days, even weeks, and are expressed in one or two words (“I’m fine”, “Nothing’s wrong”) or shrugged shoulders and downcast eyes. Welcome to the world of passive aggression.
Now, passive aggression is a common behavior pattern across varying relationships, from business (i.e. a work email that includes the phrase “Thanks in advance”) to personal (a person says “I’m not mad” but — spoiler alert! — they totally are mad). It develops when one or both parties don’t have, or refuse to use, the coping skills to deal with conflicts head-on. So they resort to an indirect expression of anger. It’s a natural response. It’s also infuriating. But there are ways to keep the behavior at bay.
“All of our defense mechanisms are something that we develop when we’re children,” says Karen Bonnell, a couples therapist and author. “We develop them to get our needs met or, as best we can, figure we’re going to survive better.”
The defaulting to passive aggressiveness happens in a relationship when one partner or the other reaches a point in a disagreement where they are unable to find a more constructive solution. When that happens, says Bonnell, something she calls the “tiny human” inside takes over.
“All of our defense mechanisms are something that we develop when we’re children. We develop them to get our needs met or, as best we can, figure we’re going to survive better.”
“Sometimes that tiny human is just mad,” she says. “Much like a toddler or a preschooler, he or she is now just mad and mommy or daddy is standing over us saying, ‘Put your shoes and socks on we have to go to preschool or daycare’ and we’re all like, ‘No.’”
Bonnell says that, as they are in a toddler, these indirect acts of defiance are a means of taking control. “As indirect and immature as that may be, it’s one way we feel like we have a little bit of control in a world where it feels like other people are managing our lives,” she says.
Passive aggression, Bonnell adds, can be a default response to what one partner might perceive as repetitive demands from the other. If they feel that they are being asked to do something that they have already said that they’re unwilling or unable to do, they’ll often slip into passive aggressive behavior in order to shut their partner down. “You might even say, ‘Yeah I’ll do that,’ and you don’t mean it, just to get your partner off your back.”
So how do you put an end to this? In order to combat passive aggression, Bonnell says that it’s important to take an empowered stance and communicate in a straightforward, direct way what you will and will not do.
“I don’t need to be passive aggressive,” Bonnell says, “I’m telling you straight up that this isn’t going to happen and I’m doing it in a responsible and respectful way.”
She also says that it’s key for the other person in the relationship to take a look at how they relate to their partner. “If you and I get into this thing where I just feel like you don’t listen to me and you just continue to try and dominate the situation,” she says, “over time, my tiny human is going to be sitting on the floor saying, ‘I’m not going to put my socks on.’”
Additionally, Bonnell says, it’s important to avoid the all-too-common response of approaching a disagreement with hostility. If something isn’t done around the house or you feel that your partner isn’t handling things the way he or she should, how you react to the situation can determine what they’re response will be.
“If I approach you in an active-aggressive way, you’re going to blow me off,” she says. “On the other hand, if I’m not criticizing you, I’m more likely to enter into a different way of relating to the problem. This takes some maturity on both of our parts.”
“If you and I get into this thing where I just feel like you don’t listen to me and you just continue to try and dominate the situation,” she says, “over time, my tiny human is going to be sitting on the floor saying, ‘I’m not going to put my socks on.’”
Passive aggressive reactions to disagreements can also be avoided by refusing to engage in the other’s behavior. For example, if one partner says to the other, “Call me or text me when you get to work,” and that partner then forgets, a chain reaction can happen. The next time the one who forgot to call asks their spouse to do the same, chances are they won’t, with the argument being, “Well, he didn’t call me, why should I call him?” Then the other spouse will pull the same thing and on and on it goes. “And now we’re like two eighth graders in the cafeteria arguing over the Twinkie!” says Bonnell. “We always have the choice of, ‘Do I go low? Do I default into those defensive behaviors and just participate in the nonsense? Or do I go high?'”
Because some of these behaviors and attitudes are hardwired into our DNA from a young age, it may be hard to undo them and even harder to undo them in our partner. However, Bonnell says that, if we can gain awareness of and control over our own passive-aggressive tendencies, we can become a model for those around us and, hopefully, turn things around for the better.
“There is one part of this relationship that you have 100 percent control over,” Bonnell says, “and that is yourself. How you behave, how you participate is 100 percent on you.”